[Originally published as And so He Gives His Beloved Sleep]
Psalm 127 says that there is no point in doing anything if God is not in it, or if he did not ask me to do it. However, if he is in it, I need to:
- get up at a reasonable time,
- enjoy my labor,
- quit when it is time to quit,
- and get a good nights’ sleep.
Then I can take on tough jobs such as raising children.
Does this mean that if I can’t sleep then I am not resting in the Lord as well as those who can sleep? Not necessarily. There are a lot of factors contributing to sleep issues, from inherited problems, to medical problems, to legitimate high-stress level, to environmental contributions.
Besides, yelling at myself for not sleeping is the best way to make sure I never fall sleep.
If you can’t sleep, the first thing is to always start by thanking God for your sleep problem. You are in good company. We can see from the psalms that king David often did not sleep well.
How David Learned to Sleep Well
Psalms 4 suggests reviewing the day to give God thanks for:
- what he has given you,
- enabled you to do,
- people he has worked through and in,
- new insight into how skillfully he has designed you, and
- “accidents” he has arraigned to aid you and show you how much he is involved with you.
Psalm 5:1-3 gives us a template for healthy thought patterns. As you prepare to drop off, promise God that the first thing he will hear from you in the morning is your thanks:
- that you are already dead to sin and alive to him
- and that you look forward to walking the day in his strength.
If you just can’t quit worrying and reviewing negatives, work with a counselor to improve your ability to rest in the Lord.
Then it’s time to research healthy sleep habits:
- Get up at the same time each day no matter when you go to sleep.
- For an hour before bedtime, have daily habits which signal your brain that you are preparing for sleep.
- No electronic devices unless you are wearing blue-blocking glasses. The blue light in the devices signal the supra-chiasmic nucleus that it is high noon and you shouldn’t go to sleep. Your brain will not put out any melatonin if there is blue light hitting your eyes.
- Focus on things calming and fairly “useless.” If you get a lot done by staying up too late, your mind will think that this is a good thing to repeat. The exception is reading the Bible or prayer (Psalm 42:8 119:148). Read things that are mildly funny or interesting. Don’t do heavy exercising during this hour. If you do that, the devil will put you to sleep.
- Take care of distractions. When I lived in Alaska and had almost 24-hour sunlight, I covered the windows with aluminum foil and ran a fan to cover the noises of children playing outside at 2 am.
- Most people go to sleep best in a cool room.
- Don’t eat anything during this time. It may help you feel sleepy, but then end up waking you with heartburn during the night.
- If you try to sleep and can’t, then get up after 15-20 min and go into another room and pray, read the Bible, or read neutral things. If you stay tossing and turning, your brain will register that the bedroom is the toss-and-turn room and not the sleep room.
- Never discuss or argue about anything with your spouse just before bed. (Subconsciously, some people pick a fight at the end of the day so that the other person will give in just so they can get some sleep.)
Sometimes an important issue does pop up at this time and you are worried that it will be forgotten or swept under the rug if not dealt with then. Have a “Problem-solving teamwork” notebook and write down the issue in it, then set an hour each week in which to open the book and work to figure things out.
- Set an alarm you can trust and do not have a clock you can see from your pillow to stare at.
- If there is a medical reason causing your sleeplessness, such as sleep apnea or high thyroid, these must be checked out. So, talk to your doctor and maybe get a referral to a sleep clinic.
- There are no proven herbal sleep aids, but it is OK to try teas. Just remember that most things need an hour to do anything.
- It is important to be aware that sleep-oriented Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has been shown to work even better than medications.
There are no really good medications but some are worth a try:
Melatonin works well for resetting the clock in your head if you travel to other time zones. Take the melatonin about an hour before you would like to go to sleep and it will take about 2 weeks to pull your sleep time back to the time you want. About one in ten people take melatonin and feel sleepy an hour later. Then about half will find gradual benefit after 2 weeks.
Old people have trouble making enough melatonin naturally and worry-worts use theirs up during the day trying to calm down. These have to replenish the supply in the brain. If you take a supplement, never go over 10 mg as it can backfire and cause side effects. Long-term use in children is not a good idea as melatonin is a hormone and no one knows what it might do to children who are growing and have crazy hormones to start with.
Over-the-counter preparations usually have diphenhydramine in them which is fine for a day or two once in a while but usually quits working after a week.
Antidepressants can help with sleep, as can dopamine 2 blockers, but these are serious medications and should probably not be used just for sleep. However, if they treat an underlying psychiatric condition, they would help with sleep.
If worry is causing your chronic sleep issues, learning to casting all your cares on God will lead to a gradual calming of the brain to allow natural sleep. But if we have fallen into a bad habit it takes months to reprogram our ability to let go of worry.
[Dr. Bell provides more pharmaceutical options to discuss with your doctor on his original post.]